Roadrunners in winter, part 3 of a series

Hanging around in between other people’s doings is what I am doing these days.  First my daughter’s wedding, then my move to Fresno, where she has moved with her new husband.  The apartment I have dibs on is not yet ready.  Thus I spend long days still in Mountain View, fitfully packing, chatting with Elf and Opus, and watching Netflix…

So here’s Part 3 of my series from a 1990s blog in New Mexico, about the seasonal habits of roadrunners.  These characters are so much fun to observe, and their interactions with donkeys sometimes almost caused me to choke from laughing so hard…

roadrunner-in-wisteria
Lying in wait in the depths of our big wisteria tree, this roadie was so fixated on a bird feeder hanging on a lower branch that he never moved as I filled it.  The sneaky posture is so snakelike it seems quite natural that Roadrunners frequently catch and devour large rattlesnakes…

Roadies in Winter

As the cool days and icy nights of the high desert winter shrivel plants, send the largest grasshoppers and crickets to arid sandy sepulchres and deliver lizards to hibernation recesses inaccessible to roadrunners, the omnivorous birds scout food over widening areas.  They crouch in tree limbs near bird feeders, scoot along fence lines where windblown detritus is most likely to contain torpid insects and snakes, patrol hay stacks for mice,  poke around manure piles for edible larvae and large insects lurking in warm compost.

The first lemon and peach lights of a midwinter’s dawn sky often reveal large flocks of crows gathered in the donkey paddock.  Like a gaggle of pokey window-shoppers in a mall, these somber suited birds meander through dead weeds, pausing to drink at the stock tank.

The long grey sword of a beak brandished by the roadrunner cleaves the flock in twain as crows drop their dignity to squawk and scatter.  Body gliding, legs pedalling, the dashing bird rides an invisible bicycle, shooting into the heart of the crow flock.  Beak aimed for a sleek, black chest, topknot ruffled high, the roadrunner drives like a missile to the target.  No matter that the moment he scatters the crows one will inevitably swoop back to tap his long downcurved tail, causing him to spring to a fence for safety.  He has to pace dogs, spook donkeys and charge crows.

Why?

Because it is the nature of roadrunners to indulge in activities which baffle the rest of us.

As the desert sun steams crystal ice off crisp brown weeds in the paddock, the agile roadrunner foots a mile between himself and slow-motion crows, scooting along the dirt side of a drainage ditch looking for breakfast.

What a pity his beak won’t grin.

*********

Over in California’s Bay Area right now, here is a resident rodent (sort of sounds like roadrunner, doesn’t that?) doing what it loves — teasing Elf and Opus during a mid-day walk.

black-squirrel-drawing

Summer Roadrunners

It is evident that days grow shorter now it’s August, even cooped up in a second floor apartment while wheelchair repairs are awaited.  It’s downright cool between mountain ranges here in the peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

This slow reduction in the sun’s daily rays brings strong thoughts about a creature who shared my land for fifteen years.  A bird so odd, intelligent, adaptable and predictable mainly for its unpredictability that it has long been the darling of nature writers in the western USA.

Geococcyx californianus.  The Roadrunner.  A creature whose doings brought out the scientific side of my donkey, Jasper, while I observed interactions from a distance.  All the while the Roadrunners were practicing their own surveys of humans sharing their ancestral land. Certainly I, the one most often at home, was under observation just about any time I was outdoors for more than a few minutes.

Evidently their conclusions edgily accepted me.  They became quite cozy over the years.

It will be fun, I think, to share a few memories of these old friends, as the seasons pass.   Here’s the first installment:

Summer

Roadrunner with snake sm
Roadrunners catch — and eat — full grown rattlesnakes.  Sketch by Emily Lee.

While summer temperatures hovered above the 100-degree mark for days, I worked on woodcarving projects in the garage, door open to catch breezes. Hummingbirds buzzed though, hanging in air like sparkling ornaments as they inspected the truck’s tail lights, then myself when I wore a red t-shirt.

Roadrunners occasionally strolled about as I carved.  Curious, one bird found it necessary to climb up and down every shelf, pile of boxes, table, dolly, stack of wood.   He even rested on the truck tires.  More than once, while my ears heard little beyond power tools, he startled me out of my wits by stealthily ascending metal utility shelves, then sending paint cans or flower pots cascading down beside me.  I returned the favor one day when I glanced from my work to spot him snoozing peacefully atop the shelves.  My own version of his rattling “ZZZZTTTT!” caused his tail to disappear around the corner in no time flat.  Soon he was back, scurrying up onto some cardboard boxes to continue his rest.

One mid-July day I glanced out to see what the donkeys were up to and spotted two roadrunners dancing through their mating ritual.  The pair ran towards each other from opposite sides of the paddock, one bearing a bobtailed lizard in his beak.  Twice in his twirling dashes towards his mate, the  bird stopped to bow his head, raising crest and tail high.  The female also paused in her rush towards the rendezvous, as her mate performed the bow.  It was fast, flamenco style, elegant.  The abrupt pauses emphasized the speed of the rest of the performance.

As the two came together, the male leaped onto the female’s back without missing a beat — and stood there like a feathered bull rider as the female fluttered her wings and hopped about.   During a still moment the birds mated, and while doing so, the lizard was passed from the male’s beak to the female’s.  The tender interlude lasted about forty-five seconds before the male leaped away to race straight towards the door where I stood.  Under a gate he shot, crest held high.  His vivid red-and-blue skin patch — present only at this time of year — shone behind his pale eye before he veered away, disappearing around the building.

The female hop-glided atop the fence, where she paused long enough to half-swallow the lizard, then down she drifted, into a thicket of Siberian elms, part of her meal still protruding from her beak.

Throughout this mating, Jasper, the black donkey, stood ten feet from the couple, nose poking from his shed, silently watching.  The moment the female hopped onto the fence he began examining the vacated area.  No telling what he was looking for, but he worked with enough method to please Hercule Poirot.

Sometime during that evening on the front lawn, the nearly grown roadrunner chick I had seen one of the parents feeding shortly before their mating ritual was attacked.  Seven brand new quills from the left wing were found, together with a handful of body feathers.  Broken off rather than pulled out, the primary feathers suggested that a hard blow had been dealt by something.  Cat?  Hawk?

There were other losses of young Roadies over the years, including one that fell into the donkeys’ tank.  I felt so badly after finding the lifeless body one morning that I constructed a sort of ladder up the side of the thirty gallon metal container, from welded wire fencing.

Still, there were enough nesting successes and surviving teenage Roadrunners to keep our area well covered and ourselves well entertained.